As I See It: One Cabbage Leaf
October 24, 2011 Victor Rozek
Nations are typically organized around a set of founding principles and enduring personality traits. France initially coalesced around the rallying cry of the revolution: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and later embraced overpriced food and rude service. America united in its support of individual rights and unlimited use of fossil fuels. And Canada stood unabashedly for real maple syrup and hockey. But whether it’s settling a frontier, relieving a monarch of his head, or deposing whatever crony the CIA chooses for you, once governments achieve their basic mandates, the wise ones seek new ways to improve the lives of their citizens.
By and large, the industrialized democracies have achieved admirable levels of freedom, affluence, safety, and comfort. But while America continues to display a strange hostility toward the 99 percent of its citizens who don’t work on Wall Street, European democracies are gradually adopting a new standard for government behavior. Increasingly, decisions are being filtered through a single criterion: Do they contribute to people’s well being? And, of the sixteen benchmarks that have been used to measure well being, two of them have to do with IT, and one of those suggests the process may have been co-opted.
Well being is a timely concept for struggling Americans. What is turning out to be the world’s longest recession has all the qualities of a laboratory virus designed to attack only the poor and middle class. Andy Kroll of Mother Jones describes the realities facing working people: “Between 1999 and 2009, the net jobs gain in the American workforce was zero. In the six previous decades, the number of jobs added rose by at least 20 percent per decade.” And while jobs flat-lined, incomes fell. “In 2010, the average middle-class family took home $49,445, a drop of $3,719 or 7 percent in yearly earnings from 10 years earlier.”
For a decade, the middle class has been squeezed between falling wages and stagnant job growth. To maintain their standard of living, homeowners pulled equity from their homes until prices collapsed. In response, the government ignored the victims and rewarded the perpetrators. As far as the middle class is concerned, whether the economy will fall into a double-dip recession is a moot point, says Kroll. “How can the economy tumble back into recession if it never left in the first place?”
In contrast to the save-the-guys-with-the-yachts-first approach, Europeans are attempting to broaden their focus from economic growth, as measured solely by GDP, to improving their nations’ overall well being. Their method is simple: adopt people-centered programs and policies. The impacts of those policies are then measured across 16 areas of opportunity. Invariably, some criteria overlap, but the goal is constant improvement.
The Human Development index is based on health, life expectancy, access to knowledge and education, and standard of living. The U.S. came in a respectable fourth in 2010, but only 12th when adjusted for inequality. The appalling number of people without healthcare and the prohibitive cost of higher education contributed to the slide.
The Global Peace index looks at a nation’s love affair with war and weaponry; its internal stability and its relationship with neighbors. The U.S. ranked 82nd out of 153 nations surveyed. Being the world’s policeman didn’t help the ranking, but nor did our post 9-11 invasion, which one observer dubbed “Operation Enduring Misery,” now in its 10th year. Needless to say, the $1.5 trillion spent on warfare was unavailable for projects which could have produced genuine well being.
Quality of Life criteria include health, freedom, unemployment rate, income, climate, political stability, security, gender equality, and family and community life. The U.S. did not make the top ten. Ireland, Switzerland, and Norway topped the list. In fairness, it should be noted that these are all small and largely homogenous countries lacking the complexities and population size of the U.S.
Life Expectancy doesn’t vary wildly among industrialized nations, but surprisingly the U.S. was only 29th. Also surprising, the U.S. was rated sixth behind Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Singapore, as the world’s Most Competitive Economy.
IT Networked Readiness has an impact on both quality of life and the economy. The U.S. ranked number one in 2005, but two years later fell to number seven. Those rankings do not include the latest broadband deployment, where the U.S. is ranked 23rd. That number is likely to fall further as other nations invest in infrastructure while we continue to starve government and then claim it doesn’t work.
And here’s the skunk in the bouquet: IT Software Piracy Levels. Piracy Levels? Arguably, the only people who benefit from low piracy rates are software providers. I smell the undue influence of the Business Software Alliance. This item clearly does not belong in the equation but nonetheless, here it is. According to the BSA, which investigated practices in 97 countries, the U.S. was the nation with the lowest incidence of piracy with 21 percent, and Vietnam and Zimbabwe were the highest at 90 percent. It’s good to still be number one at something.
Secularization is considered a well being issue since it honors individual choice in contrast to the oppressiveness of fundamentalist societies. The survey found that the more developed a country, the less religious it tended to be. The U.S. is the only developed nation where more than 50 percent of its citizens (59 percent) cite religion as “important.” It’s hard to know what to make of that statistic other than 59 percent of Americans think their faith is valuable. In spite of what the surveyors infer, this is not a referendum on rationality. If it was, what would be the function of faith?
Economic Freedom, Gender Equity, Gay Rights, Obesity Level, Adult High Literacy Levels, Quality of the Environment, Open Access to Research, Asylum Seeker Acceptance, and Aid to Developing Nations are other criteria that Europeans believe contribute to a society’s well being. The U.S. made respectable showings in most of these categories with the exception of obesity, which is high, and aid to developing nations which, as a percentage of GDP, has been steadily shrinking.
The top-scoring nations were: Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, and Germany. The U.S. came in 12th. Open-minded and nonaggressive, the Scandinavian countries did particularly well. Their people enjoy superior levels of literacy, vitality, and economic well being. They have low debt levels, live in clean cities, and value their environment. They benefit from public infrastructure that is up to date and reliable, healthcare that is universally available, and minimal political corruption. The Guardian, a British newspaper not given to hyperbole, called Sweden “The most successful society the world has ever known.”
I have never been to Sweden, but I suspect that’s arguable. What isn’t debatable is the value of creating a humane world; societies where everyone is important, each person matters, and public resources are invested for the common good.
Prior to our last presidential election, Maya Angelou wrote: “We need leaders who love us.” I remember thinking that was silly and sentimental when I first read it. But having seen the steady downward mobility of the neglected 99 percent, watching people lose their jobs, their homes, their savings, and their dignity, it’s hard not to conclude our leaders are mired in an ideological morass and more covetous of attaining power than in using it to solve the nation’s problems.
Millions of American voices cry out for relief and their cries echo in the corridors of power like so much white noise; as insignificant and easily ignored as a passing ant. A New York Times editorial recently observed that “Americans have lost their belief in redress and recovery.” Which is, I fear, another way of saying they believe that government no longer cares one cabbage leaf about their well being.